Which Is Correct: Like or As?

Which is correct: like or as?

Last week, for a change, it was grammarians rather than Republicans who were attacking President Obama. In a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, Obama complained that his critics “talk about me like a dog.”

What Obama should have said, claimed grammarians, was “They talk about me as if I were a dog.” Or, more precisely, some grammarians made that claim. Others were just fine with the President’s off-the-cuff remarks.

Who’s right?

Sorting out this little tempest-in-a-Tea-Party (sorry – I couldn’t resist!) will take some doing.

Let’s start with the word like. Some grammarians permit only very restricted use of like, preferring as most of the time. This is the group that led the charge.

Others, more liberal, note that like has long been used in place of as by some very good writers. The Associated Press Stylebook, which sets the standard for many prestigious newspapers, belongs to this group. They accept like in place of as if one condition is met: The like construction contains only a noun and its modifiers. Here’s what I mean:

John looks like a man I used to know. ACCEPTABLE

John looks like a winner. ACCEPTABLE

John looks like he could use a day off.  WRONG

(It should be “John looks as if he could use a day off.”)

It looks like – sorry, as if – “Talk about me like a dog” would be ok by Associated Press standards.

But there’s another problem: The meaning is ambiguous. What does “talk about me like a dog” mean? I’m seeing two possibilities. “They talk about me as a dog would.” Nope – that’s nonsensical. Or (more likely) “They talk about about me as if I were a dog” (the alternative I suggested earlier).

The real question here is whether you fall into the “Language is just communication” camp or the “Language should be logical” camp.

More and more, as I get older, I find myself pitching my tent in the first camp. If you insist that language should always be logical, you’re forced to twist sentences into all kinds of ghastly contortions that don’t help the meaning one bit.

Take a look at this sentence, for example:

Linda explained how her proposal differed from her competitor.

Strictly speaking, it’s an illogical sentence. You can’t compare a proposal to a group of competitors. You would compare Linda’s proposal to her competitor’s proposal.

So you would end up with alternatives that are logical but awkward, like this:

Linda explained how her proposal differed from her competitor’s proposal. (repetitious)

Linda explained how her proposal differed from that of her competitor. (I hate “that of”)

What to do? I dunno. I’d probably cross out the sentence and start over:

Linda explained what made her proposal different.

Clear enough, isn’t it? Do you really have to use “that of” to explain what Linda was talking about?

Or I might just ignore the grammarians, throw caution to the winds, and use the original sentence: Linda explained how her proposal differed from her competitor. Heck, most people wouldn’t notice the alleged grammar problem anyway.

Back to President Obama. If he was indeed speaking off-the-cuff, a fancy grammatical structure would be out of place in his remarks. I’m perfectly okay with “like a dog.”

One final note: Some researchers looked up the “like a dog” construction and found out it had been used earlier by both Jimi Hendrix and Muhammad Ali. That puts the President in pretty good company, in my book.

Today’s Quiz  ANSWER

The sentence is incorrect. “Past” refers to completed time. The word needed in this sentence is passed. The -ed ending means that the action is over.

Here’s the corrected sentence:

I waited impatiently as the basket of hot rolls was passed around the table. CORRECT

Please note: Passed (what a quarterback did or what you did when you took your algebra test) is different from pasted (similar to glued). My students confuse these two words all the time – make sure you don’t.


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